Anniversary of Antietam

Since the nation has just observed the anniversary of one of the deadliest days in American history, it is appropriate to note that today is the anniversary of the deadliest day in American history, the battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

I first visited the Antietam battlefield on a late spring day 15 years ago. It was shortly before sundown. I had parked my car on a road near an old church across from a large field. I didn’t know yet what that field was. I walked onto it, and suddenly felt, in the grassy ground beneath my feet, what seemed to me like the death-passion of the hundreds or thousands of men who I realized had died on that spot. The mental traces of the experience of those men in the moments of their death—killing and being killedówere still present, and could still be immediately sensed. Then, as I walked around, I saw a memorial on the field, including a photograph of a huge pile of dead soldiers stacked up. From my later readings, I learned that the spot where I had been standing was the point of the most intense confrontation between the armies.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top, said something at a dedication at Gettysburg many years after the war that casts light on my experience:

In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 17, 2003 12:03 PM | Send

Thanks to Mr. Auster for these sublime words — both his own and those of Gettysburg hero Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.

It is often thought and said that America, so materially rich, doesn’t have a “soul.” But we do have one — and it is deep. Part of our “soul” got expressed precisely in the heroic actions — the superhuman struggles — of those men who fought on both sides on that battlefield and throughout that awesome, awesome war. The very same deep American “soul” that motivated those men in that struggle — the selfsame — inhabits our breasts, our hearts, and our minds: just as they were, we are Americans. It is a national “soul” to rival the greatest: no, not the great long-suffering poetic Russian “soul,” or the deep formal contemplative Japanese one, or the misty-magical-yearning Irish one, or the Sturm-und-Drang romantic-pessimistic great German one is “greater” or “deeper” than this, our own home-grown American one. May those sacred Civil War battlefields — that ground that Lincoln said was hallowed beyond our poor power to add or detract — never be desecrated by transformation into parking lots, subdivisions, or whatever a few of them were threatened with recently: if we lose reminders of our American soul, wherewith shall we find our way, or know which direction to turn in time of crisis?

Posted by: Unadorned on September 17, 2003 10:59 PM

This ennobling quotation from the Hero of Little Round Top will be inscribed on a brass tablet and presented to the National Park Service by this poster.

Posted by: Edwin Vogt on February 19, 2004 10:39 AM
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